July 1, 2020, by Lexi Earl

Understanding genetic variation in winged bean: an interview with Niki Tsoutsoura

Niki is a PhD candidate with the Future Proteins Platform. Niki holds an MSc. in Crop Improvement from the University of Nottingham. During her MSc studies, she became familiar with underutilised crops like winged bean. Underutilised crops are relatively underexploited as they have low economic importance or agricultural significance in developed economies, therefore they receive less attention and limited research is conducted. Winged bean, as a legume, has a high protein content and nutritional value and contributes in nitrogen fixation, soil fertility and structure, making it a promising future crop. Niki’s project is titled: Winged bean – a new soybean for the tropics? She is supervised by Dr Sean Mayes,  Prof John Brameld, Dr Wai Kuan Ho, and Prof Festo Massawe.

Why did you decide to do a PhD? What were you doing before?
I decided that I wanted to do a PhD back in 2014, during my Erasmus placement in SRUC in Edinburgh, because I was and still am fascinated by research. I enjoy broadening my knowledge and gaining new research skills.

Why did you choose this particular PhD project?

I am interested in food security and finding ways to feed a fast-growing population under climate change. I believe part of the solution is in underutilised crops. Underutilised crops carry resilience and disease resistance traits that are important in breeding programmes. My PhD is about an underutilised crop named “winged bean” that has high protein content, resembling  soybean. Winged bean is grown in tropical regions, where the cultivation of soybean is not favourable. In the tropic regions of Asia and Africa, people are facing protein–energy malnutrition that causes severe and lethal diseases. I chose this PhD because it aims to investigate the genetic variation of an underutilised crop in order to give a better understanding of the desirable and undesirable traits that winged bean carries and the potential to be bred to be a ‘soybean for the tropics’.

Tell us about your research. What do you study? Why is it important?

In a global level, I consider my PhD important because it aims to battle food insecurity in tropic regions, where adults and mainly children are hospitalised and die from protein malnutrition. Regarding my personal development skills, I will gain skills and deepen my knowledge in genetics and food science. 

How do you explain your research to ordinary people?

I am working with an underexploited bean that has high protein content like soya. In tropic regions, where people are protein malnourished and soybean is not favourably grown, this bean, “winged bean”, is cultivated. Studying the different winged bean varieties, their genetics and protein composition, will help to identify the important characteristics that are essential for improving the cultivated varieties.

How do you cope with the pressure of doing a PhD?

I always try to have a balanced and healthy diet, meet with friends and find time for my hobbies (yoga, pilates, gym) in order to keep my mental and physical health.

Posted in Meet the Beacon